The Monetary System of China under the Qing Dynasty

  • Niv HoreshEmail author
Living reference work entry


This chapter delineates the main trends that characterized Qing monetary history. The early Qing (1644–1722) was generally a period when military expenditure relative to fiscal revenue was high and coin casting sites in bad repair. The mid-Qing (1723–1842) was, on the other hand, a period of great territorial expansion, strong central government, and vigorous coin output, mainly under the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796). The late Qing (1842–1911) was, in turn, a period in which China came under intense foreign pressure and was rattled by the catastrophic Taiping rebellion. It was also a period in which China began suffering from an acute outflow of silver due to an adverse balance of payments. These circumstances eventually led the Qing government to reintroduce paper money. And while Japanese silver and copper imports had helped replenish the Chinese monetary system in the early-Qing period, late-Qing China saw a decline in domestic mining output as well as a drop in Japanese metal imports. These shortfalls were tempered in the mid-Qing era by the influx of Latin American silver, which lasted until the 1800s, as well as by the development of copper mines in Yunnan.


Copper Silver Bimetallism Debasement Paper money 

Introduction: Sources, Periodization, Themes

The most fundamental term with which to describe the monetary system during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), as opposed to some other periods, would be bimetallism. That is to say those two types of monetary metals circulated concurrently in the economy of China proper. The first one being copper in the form of cast coinage (zhiqian), with minimal inscription in Chinese and Manchu, and a square hole in the middle. Copper coinage broadly served the peasant economy. The other type consisted of silver bars (yinding) broadly serving the government and mercantile community.

Customarily, batches of 1000 Chinese copper coins would be threaded together through the round hole in the middle for ease of transfer. Such “strings of cash” were known as diao, each being conceptually on par with one tael or liang of silver (approximately 37.5 g). Higher denomination money in the form of silver principally meant bars resembling traditional Chinese shoes – known to Westerners as sycee. These shoe-shaped bars weighed about 50 tael, but there could be considerable variations of ingot weight and fineness even within the same province. Such variations gave rise to assaying establishments, mostly of private-order nature, which guaranteed the quality of sycee used in market transaction (Wagel 1915; Kann 1927; Cribb 1992; Rang 1988). Tax receipts in loose silver ingots would often incur “meltage fee” (huohao or haoxian) whereby local officials would demand a surcharge from taxpayers for the silver lost during the process of assaying and recasting the ingots into standard bars.

The term sycee was an English derivative of the Cantonese pronunciation for “pure silk.” In South China, a good-quality silver bar was thought to possess a shiny veneer reminiscent of silk. From mid-seventeenth century, foreign-minted silver dollar coins (yinyuan, meaning round silver) otherwise constituted a lighter and therefore more convenient medium of exchange. The latter were virtually all of Latin American provenance until the Qing started minting silver dollars of its own in the late nineteenth century. Tax was remitted to imperial coffers in the form of silver ingots, while official and military wages were often paid out in copper coinage. Foreign silver dollars, however, became an increasingly common means of payment by 1700, particularly in coastal areas (Man-houng 2006, p. 43; Shi 2016). In addition to copper coins, the Qing authorities produced distinct silver coins and relatively small amounts of gold coins exclusively for use in Xinjiang and Tibet (Zhongguo lidai huobishi 1999; Boulnois 1983; Mu Yuan 1994).

One copper “cash” coin would conceptually weigh approximately one tenth of a silver tael, thereby implying a 1:100 exchange rate between silver and copper. However, the actual exchange rate was affected by coin weight fluctuation over time of between 0.1 and 0.14 of one tael, as well as variations in alloy composition (i.e., zinc and tin infusion). In addition, that bimetallic exchange rate fluctuated according to the availability of either metal at any point in time and respective demand. Namely, if the exchange rate between silver tael and copper cash was 1:1000 in principle, then shortages of either metal or coin supply shifts could bring about fluctuations of anywhere between 500 and 1500 coins per one silver tael (Shi 2016, xxiii).

Within the cash economy, a distinction was made between “smaller” coins (xiaoqian) and “bigger” ones (daqian) whereby “big” would usually denote standard-weight or full-bodied coins and “small” would denote debased or forged coins. One thousand standard coins would count as 1000 legal tender units (wen), thus qualifying as one string of cash. On the other hand, xiaoqian would circulate below their face value, namely, 1000 thereof would fall short of one standard string. However, it is important to note that in other settings, daqian could mean quite the opposite. Historically, one inflationary means for Chinese rulers was to attempt disbursing bulky coins with a face value of anywhere between 5 and 1000 wen but weighing much less that what their face value might convey (see, e.g., the “Xianfeng” era section below).

There is a large body of excellent scholarly literature focusing specifically on the Qing monetary system within the larger sweep of East Asian monetary history. The most comprehensive and influential studies arguably include Morse (1906), Kann (1927) and King (1965) in English, Yang Duanliu (1962) and Chen Feng (2008) in Chinese, and Ichiko Shōzō (2004) in Japanese. The monetary system is also covered in general surveys of the Qing economy – most notably Wang Yeh-chien (1981) and Quan Hansheng (1987). Basic Qing monetary, financial, and fiscal thought is covered, in turn, in studies of Chinese premodern economic thought – most notably Ye Shichang (2003) and Zhang Jiaxiang (2001) in Chinese.

Vital, as well, to gaining a better understanding of the system are comparative studies that underscore the Qing era within the larger sweep of Chinese and world monetary progression, including the various iterations of Peng Xinwei’s pioneering studies ( 1958–2007, 1994) in Chinese and in English translation (1994); Akinobu Kuroda (2003) and Kishimoto Mio (1997) in Japanese (2003); and Elvin (1973), Davies (2002), Horesh (2014), and Von Glahn (2016) in English. Clearly, the Qing monetary system diverged from Western forms of bimetallism before the British adoption of the gold standard in 1821. Western bimetallism comprised silver alongside higher-value gold, both in the form of minted coinage with elaborate inscription, as opposed to China’s traditionally cast “cash,” which was easier to forge. Western bimetallism also typically entailed a fixed exchange rate between gold and silver which was determined by the government, whereas the Chinese silver-copper exchange rate was largely determined by the market.

This divergent Chinese system did not usually appear discordant to Western observers until well into the nineteenth century. From then on, however, the peculiarities of the Qing monetary system would be increasingly criticized as eccentric and anachronistic (Horesh 2014; Burger 2008). That is not to say that gold had never served as important medium of exchange in China proper. To the contrary, as Kakinuma’s chapter in this Handbook clearly suggests, gold had in fact been a key component of the Chinese monetary system in antiquity. However, by the mid-Qing era, decorative tastes and monetary patterns alike made the gold to silver exchange rate (roughly 1:10) lower than in India and Europe (1:12–15), where gold was coined. In other words, silver was comparatively dearer in China, and consequently much imported silver was exchanged there in return for gold, which was later on sold in India and Europe (Giráldez 2015, 174–176).

In fact, prior to the Qing coming to power, iron base coinage, bolts of fabric, and paper money had also been important components of the Chinese monetary system at various times. However, Qing emperors preferred to stick with the bimetallic monetary principles of the late-Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Unlike the Ming emperors, however, the Qing emperors were ethnic Manchus who were overseeing the Chinese majority. To consolidate power, the early-Qing emperors had to defeat or placate many ethnic-Chinese (i.e., Han) Ming loyalists. They therefore felt they had to demonstrate their adherence to Chinese norms of governance as practiced in the late Ming. As such, conservatism in the monetary realm implied rigid continuation of the bimetallic standard.

On the other hand, the early Ming emperors inherited from the Song and the Mongol (Yuan) dynasties a predilection for paper money issuance. That China was the birthplace of paper money long before Europe had been attested to by Marco Polo and other contemporaries (Vogel 2012). By the 1500s, however, government paper money had fallen from grace because it became associated with inflation. As will be explained below, when consolidating power, the first Qing emperor briefly resorted to convertible paper money issuance, but phased those notes out as soon as the fighting subsided.

Qing economic conservatism endured in the face of the great monetary upheaval sweeping other parts of the world in the early modern period. It ought to be understood in the context of China’s political economy where ideals revolved around low taxation and the geostrategic orientation was toward defense of the northern steppe lands whence the Manchus themselves had hailed. In other words, the Qing political economy was less geared toward maritime expansion of the early-modern mercantilist streak (Goldstone 1991).

Although there had been relatively little systemic change in monetary thought over the course of Qing rule, it is useful to divide it into three periods. Generally speaking, the central authorities’ ability to regulate coin output across the length and breadth of this vast empire was seen primarily as means of stabilizing grain prices, i.e., a marker of upright governance in Confucian thought. Thus, ample coin output reflected the strength of the dynasty in the eyes of Han officials and commoners alike. The early Qing (1644–1722) was generally a period when residual armed resistance to the Manchus among the Han populace was still rife. Military expenses were therefore high, and foundries (i.e., “mints” where coins were cast) were in bad repair. The mid-Qing (1723–1842) was, on the other hand, a period of great territorial expansion, strong central government, and vigorous coin output, mainly under the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796).

The late Qing (1842–1911) was, in turn, a period in which China came under intense Western and Japanese pressure, beginning with the first Opium War (1839–1842). It was also a period in which China began suffering from an acute outflow of silver due to an adverse balance of payments. While Japanese silver and copper imports had helped replenish the Chinese monetary system in the early-Qing period, late-Qing China saw a decline in domestic mining output as well as a drop in Japanese metal imports. These factors were tempered in the mid-Qing era by the influx of Latin American silver, which lasted until the 1800s. To be sure, the Portuguese had been trading in silver coins and in South China as early as the sixteenth century. But Latin American silver played a more crucial role in the mid- and late-Qing economy. That role is explored in depth in studies by Flynn and Giráldez (2002), Lin Man-houng (2006), and Irigoin (2009).

In the early and mid-Qing period, trade with the West had been largely confined to the city of Guangzhou (Canton) and was broadly in China’s favor. Namely, Chinese silk, tea, and porcelain were highly sought after in Europe, but only few Western commodities proved attractive to the Chinese. For that reason, Latin American-sourced silver was the only means of plugging the trade gap. Millions of Spanish colonial silver coins (“pieces-of-eight”) and, later on, Mexican Republican dollars found their way east annually. Even though silver dollars from the New World became popularly entrenched in the monetary system to the exclusion of most other foreign coinage, the Qing authorities had little clue before the twentieth century as to the condition of coin production in Latin America (Von Glahn 2007).

Apart from the expansion of maritime trade after 1842, Chinese tea had traditionally also arrived in Europe by way of Russia, as did porcelain, rhubarb, nankeens, and silk. In fact, the Romanov Empire was one of the first European polities to come into direct contact with the Qing authorities in Beijing as a result of its expansion into Siberia in the seventeenth century. The two empires agreed to form a trading hub in Outer Mongolia. However, that trade was largely in the form of barter – the Russians usually paying for Chinese commodities in furs and cattle (Foust 1969). Thus, although Russia became an important global supplier of gold in its own right by the 1830s, its monetary impact on the Chinese system remained peripheral.

Eventually, over the course of the eighteenth century, the secrets of porcelain and silk processing found their way to the West. Then, in the late nineteenth century, tea seeds were transplanted by the British in India. That import substitution, coupled with the British ability to popularize the consumption of Indian-grown opium in China after 1842, turned around the balance of payments. Much of the late-Qing period was thus characterized by a flight of silver from China. As a result, the local exchange rate between silver and copper was shooting up. Concomitantly, the land tax liability of the peasantry, which was calculated in silver tael but paid in copper cash, became more onerous (Perkins 2017).

Following their defeat in the Opium Wars, the Qing authorities were compelled to open up more cities to foreign trade. At the same time, more and more of China’s customs revenue was surrendered to the foreign-run Imperial Maritime Customs in order for the faltering Qing authorities to raise loans in London. These loans were necessary for the payment of war indemnities to the foreign powers that defeated China and for quelling the rebellions that had broken out against Manchu rule in the 1850s. That these loans were denominated in gold, while the world price of silver was falling, made it all the more difficult for the Qing authorities to repay their debts (Van de Ven 2014). Consequently, the foreign powers applied pressure on the Qing authorities to streamline their finances and taxation structure (Vissering 1914). But China remained loath to joining the gold standard. And as it turned out, it never did even after the downfall of the Qing in 1911.

On the upside, the cities opened for trade after 1842 (“treaty ports”) lured in Western financial institutions, which Chinese officialdom and private entrepreneurs began emulating. The treaty ports would therefore become the cradle of modern Chinese finance in the latter half of the nineteenth century (McElderry 1976; Ji Zhaojin 2002; Horesh 2009, 2015; Cheng Linsun 2003).

Thematically, Qing monetary history feeds into two of the most consequential debates in Chinese modern historiography. First, following Pomeranz’s (2001) pathbreaking study, there has emerged a revisionist school of thought suggesting that as late as 1850 Chinese per capita income was on par with Northwestern European norms. Quite naturally, in this complex debate straddling such vastly different polities on either extreme of Eurasia, whatever diffuse data on salaries are available, they can and should [data] be augmented by other indicators of wealth. Reliable money supply estimates could be crucial here, as are international currency exchange rates. More recent work by Allen et al. (2011) and Broadberry and Gupta (2006) has compensated for these data shortfalls by incorporating price and nutrition data with results that have tended to reestablish conventional wisdom. Horesh (2014) has argued, in turn, that the level of monetization in late-Qing China was far lower that the norm across much of Eurasia, so high income is counterintuitive.

An addendum to this debate is the conventional wisdom postulating that interest rates in Qing China were much higher than in the West. This factor, it is often argued, held back the industrialization of China right until the twentieth century. The variance here is attributed to the unruly nature of Chinese money markets before the nineteenth century. In his earlier work, Kenneth Pomeranz has suggested, for example, that speculators often transported copper coins from one province to another in order to profit from exchange rate differentials (Pomeranz 1993, pp. 43–51). However, Rosenthal and Wong (2011, pp. 134–140) have challenged this perception, arguing that Chinese interest rate data in previous studies were erroneously inferred from pawnshop data, while European interest rates were derived from annuities. In any event, the debate about historical Chinese interest rate and its correlation with agricultural productivity or living standards is still underway, calling for more research (see, e.g., Liu Qiugen 2000).

The third thematic thread linking monetary history with broader debates in Chinese historiography has to do with the so-called New Qing History (NQH). First emerging in the 1980s, it is a revisionist school of thought, portraying the Qing era as one of eclectic policy dynamism rather than conservatism. The historiographic debate here has so far largely revolved around the degree to which Manchu emperors honed their steppe acumen to form a multiethnic empire stretching far beyond China proper (e.g., Crossley 2002; Elliott 2002). The upshot was that, in order to hang on to power in the steppe frontier, Qing administrators creatively used very different tactics than those applied to China proper. Conventionally, the Qing emperors are seen as having progressively become sinicized, but NQH historians show the enduring significance of Manchu language skills retention at court. And while they accept that Qing emperors were much less geared toward maritime trade as compared with Western rulers, they do not draw parallels between the Qing patterns of governance and those of the Ming but with those of the Romanov, Ottoman, and Mughal empires (Waley-Cohen 2000).

The NQH revision of conventional wisdom has a distinct monetary dimension, calling for more research in the future. At heart here is the question of whether the funding of mid-Qing territorial expansion westward resembled the Ming, Ottoman, Russian, or Western military outlay pattern. Clearly, the mid-Qing polity did not have at its disposal the kind of national debt instruments pioneered in Sweden, the Netherlands, England, and France at the time. In much of the premodern world, coin debasement had instead constituted an important source of sovereign funding along with land tax receipts. Recoinage, on the other hand, could be a form of monetary stabilizing. In early modern Europe, debasement was then eclipsed by the issuance of convertible paper money and government bonds, quite often in order to raise funds with which to fight wars.

Qing China was no exception as territorial expansion under the Qianlong Emperor required new sources of funding. Yet it appears that, ultimately, most of the additional revenue derived from the taxation of commerce rather than from debasement. Because of the nature of the Qing base metal coinage and the expenses associated with copper casting, it appears debasement funded only a small part of the Qing military campaign in Xinjiang (see, e.g., Millward 1998, pp. 64–75; Perdue 2009, pp. 379–393). Arguably, since Western precious metal coinage was minted, it was at once harder to forge and easier to extract seignorage from (Horesh 2014).

Qing memorials are generally replete with debasement measures, but there are also notable exceptions. Copper cash could be called in to government foundries and recast (gaizhu) in inflationary or deflationary manner. As already indicated, inflation could, for example, entail the production of heavier coins (daqian) bearing face value above their intrinsic copper weight; producing standard-size, finer copper coins could mean replenishing markets with currency bearing a face value below their worth by tale. Depending on enforcement, in the long run, better quality coinage could either be hoarded or become trusted to the extent it would eventually be traded at a premium.

Given its base qualities, there were periods and localities where copper cash output could drop precipitously because it proved a net drain on government resources. In the European historical setting, such episodes are known as “the big problem of small cash” (Sargent and Velde 2014). At other times, officials prescribed a boost to casting (guzhu) because the dearth of cash was unsettling the peasantry and considered a potential cause for rebellion.

It would appear that the Qing polity – physiocratic as it was – ordinarily prized the ready availability of cash over quick seignorage gains, at least in its grain surplus heartland (cf. Dunstan 2006). So much so that the authorities at times forbade the casting of copper utensils in order to free up raw material for coinage (tongjin). Such measure could be implemented because virtually all mining output was subject to an imperial monopsony of sorts. However, far from seizing up new seignorage avenues, the authorities remained relatively tolerant of fiduciary private-order means of payment, including copper-denominated notes, until the 1850s (He 2013, Chap 5). There were even times when the Qing authorities acquiesced in the coinage of previous dynasties (guqian) continuing to circulate as legal tender (Horesh 2014).

Copper Cash and Silver Sycee

As noted earlier, the only money which circulated universally throughout the length and breadth of the Qing empire was copper “cash.” The name derived from the Portuguese word caixa, but the term used in Chinese was zhiqian or tongqian. During the late-Ming era, the Portuguese were of course the first Europeans to have come to China by sea and were thus the first to observe the intricacies of the local monetary system.

The origin of the English term cash as distinctly denoting Chinese-style copper coinage is the Sanskrit silver and gold weight unit “karsa.” The latter evolved into the Tamil word kaasu, denoting low-value coinage. It then entered the English language via the Portuguese variants for kaasu, caixa. This is not to be confused with the primary (and older) instruction of cash in the English language, which derives from the medieval Italian cassa. The tael unit, on the other hand, originated in the Malay word for weight, which similarly entered English usage by way of Portuguese.

The influx of millions of silver coins minted in present-day Bolivia and Mexico gradually changed the Chinese monetary landscape. Kishimoto (1997, pp. 359–363) argues that by the mid-eighteenth century most property contracts had been denominated in smaller silver dollars units rather than in tael units (a silver dollar usually contained around 0.7 the amount of silver in one tael). On the mainland, however, the silver dollar would become a more popular unit of account than the tael or copper coins only around the mid-nineteenth century.

Across East Asia, one could detect difficulties in sourcing sufficient metal to meet the popular demand for coinage during the early eighteenth century. In other settings, this might have catalyzed the emergence of fiduciary currency. Yet, by then, government-issued banknotes had fallen out of grace as a credible means of payment in both Korea and China.

In the early-Qing era, the exchange rate between copper coin and silver had been very volatile. Shortage of copper had in fact forced the closure of provincial foundries during the Kangxi reign (1661–1722). Nationwide casting of coin would only resume in the late 1740s. By contrast, throughout the Qianlong era, copper coin prices were relatively high, namely, above 1000 coins per 1 silver tael (Vogel 1987; Dunstan 1996, p. 70).

As discussed in great detail by Vogel and Theisen-Vogel (1989) and Golas (1999, pp. 389–392), much of the copper needed to produce Chinese “cash” had been imported from Japan between 1685 and 1715 (Shimada 2006). Nevertheless, in 1726 the bakufu authorities prohibited further exports to China, in part, so as to increase its own domestic coin output. In effect, Japanese copper continued to trickle into China thereafter, but in much smaller quantities. By the end of the eighteenth century, it accounted for only one tenth of Qing coin raw material. Moreover, between 1795 and 1851, it dropped by as much as 50% (Lin Man-houng 2015, p. 182).

Faced with the main source of copper supply drying up, the Qianlong Emperor was forced to develop alternative copper sources in remote Yunnan early in his reign. Since Yunnan was further away from the capital foundries than Japan, transport costs made coin production less profitable. To make matters worse, Yunnan was capital scarce. So in order to facilitate private mining ventures there and elsewhere in China, the Qianlong Emperor reduced output taxes to 10 – 20% and at times funded mining ventures directly (Dunstan 1996; Rowe 2005; He 2013, p. 32).

Despite these efforts to offset the loss of Japanese copper supply, a spike in the relative price of “cash” and subsequent coin dearth persisted until the late eighteenth century, often leading to lighter coin forgeries (sizhu). At the same time, China attracted much Latin American silver from foreign traders, thus enhancing the relative dearness of copper (Rowe 2009, pp. 156–158).

The Qianlong Emperor recognized that, in the short run, heavy-handed measures like impounding lighter coins or banning private copper casting would disrupt rural markets and push the price of copper even higher. The policy adopted instead was long-tern in nature: it was decided to recast better-quality coins from Yunnan copper with a view toward both seignorage and market stability. On the other hand, there is little evidence to suggest progress in the technology used for copper mining during that era; Yunnan copper mining does not seem to have incorporated water power devices, horsepower, or mechanized intervention (Golas 1999; He 2013, pp. 134–136).

In sum, under the young Qianlong Emperor, the post-Song secular decline in Chinese per capita coin output levels was temporarily halted by virtue of the newly sourced Yunnan copper and a vigorous expansionist policy. Chinese coin output level started dropping again after the 1770s, and throughout the late-Imperial era, coins genuinely or falsely pertaining to previous dynasties (guqian) widely circulated in the Chinese marketplace (see Zelin 1984, pp. 264–301; Lin Man-houng 2006, pp. 29–30).

The price of copper coin relative to silver dropped through much the late-Qing era. Conventional wisdom suggests the two key reasons for that were an adverse balance of payment leading to silver depletion and coin debasement. However, Lin Man-houng (2006) has argued that world silver supply shocks resulting from Latin American emancipation or the Napoleonic wars were also at play. Rather than making “cash” more precious, the drop in coin output and quality after the Qianlong heyday appears on balance to have dampened popular demand. If 1.6 billion wen had been cast in Beijing alone in 1800, then the output annual figure for 1841–1850 was just 1.2 billion on average (Lin Man-houng 2015).

Crucially, Yunnan copper veins had been depleted by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, it was only in 1867 that officials started memorializing the throne about the need to employ modern (i.e., steam-powered at the time) mints like the one then operating in British-ruled Hong Kong so as to economize on raw material, improve coin consistency, and discourage forgeries. The intricacies and persistence of Qing-era coin forgery prior to the adoption of steam-powered mints are discussed by Cao and Vogel (2015) and Greatrex (2008). For those interested in the topic, there is available in addition a historical overview of coin forgeries in China (Zheng Jin 2007).

In the event, steam-powered minting machinery was purchased in Birmingham, England, in 1887, and used only in Guangdong at first. The Qing government subsequently minted its first silver coin for usage all over China (“the dragon dollar”) in 1889 with a view toward chipping into the premium that Mexican dollars could fetch.

In addition, by the 1900s modern copper coin minting under imperial and provincial auspices was so extensive and debased that the value of these so-called tongyuan coins dropped precipitously. Although notional bimetallism survived in the Chinese hinterland until 1935, “cash” production and the customary stringing of “cash” had in effect died out in the early twentieth century. This was because tongyuan coins were unholed and often denominated in multiple units well above their actual metallic value.

Being full-bodied, traditional holed “cash” was gradually driven out from circulation in favor of ever-lighter types of modern-minted fractional coinage of the tongyuan variety. Traditional coins were otherwise smelted or exported to Japan, where the demand for raw copper in the ammunition industry was on the increase (Yang Duanliu 1962, pp. 22–23, 44–45; Ho Hon-wai 1993; Zheng Jin 2007, pp. 218–220). Ironically, some three decades earlier, it was actually traditional Japanese copper coins (kan’ei) that had started being shipped to coastal China, following the establishment of a modern mint in Osaka. Burger (2015, p. 221) estimates, for example, that around 15% of all coins circulating in Tianjin around 1900 were Japanese.

Qing Ambivalence to Paper Money

The nineteenth-century Western sources did not by and large provide an incisive answer as to the question of precisely why government and private-issued paper money went into decline in China in previous eras, how and precisely when privately issued notes reemerged in the Qing era, and how important a component they made for within the late-Qing monetary system. Neither did they explain in great detail whether or not the gradual reemergence of privately issued banknotes in China – which could be traced back to the latter part of the eighteenth century at the earliest – had anything to do with global financial stimuli.

Lin Man-houng (2006, pp. 36–37) suggested, for example, that premodern Chinese money shops did not start issuing notes until very late in the Qianlong reign; these shops were probably more developed in the north of China, where they mostly issued copper coin-denominated notes. Notes issued by southern money shops were denominated in silver taels. Hou and Wu (1982, vol. 1, p. 11), on the other hand, suggest private-order notes might have emerged earlier in the eighteenth century and that they were very common by the 1820s. Horesh (2014) and Cheng Linsun (2003) have more recently argued that foreign banks operating in China as of the late 1840s greatly bolstered the reformist monetary discourse there, both within and outside the imperial bureaucracy. These foreign banks were later subject to emulation by China’s homegrown modern banks.

Between 1848 and 1945, European, American, and Japanese colonial banks all issued locally denominated notes on Chinese soil, relying on metallic reserve policies and regulatory prescripts derived from the Western and Japanese monetary experience (Xian Ke 1958; Rawski 1989). As noted, these foreign financial institutions both challenged and set an example for homegrown financial institutions, laying the foundation for the rise of modern Chinese banks and the popularization of banknotes in China in the early twentieth century.

British banknotes in China were by far the most common and esteemed of all foreign banknotes. How early British banknote issuance on Chinese soil started informing Chinese monetary thinking later in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century is explained in detail by Feuerwerker (1958) and Horesh (2009). Suffice it to note here that from the 1890s onward the invocation of Western and Japanese monetary history would all but override, in argumentative terms, Chinse historic precedents in court debates on the viability of paper money. Prominent monarchist, reformer-turned-dissident, and intellectual luminary, Liang Qichao (1873–1929) is perhaps the best example: he tirelessly campaigned for China to emulate the West by embracing the gold standard, unify refractory currencies, and issue state-backed banknotes with a 1/3 metallic reserve (Hou and Wu 1982, vol. 3, pp. 322–339).

Other scholars, however, argue that privately issued banknotes had become a pillar of the late-Imperial Chinese monetary system well before the entry of Western banking in the late 1840s. In the alternative narrative, these scholars seem to offer what the Chinese at the time did not trust were only government-issued notes. Notes issued by established private financiers were well accepted, it is argued (Wang Ye-chien 1981; Hao Yen-p’ing 1986, pp. 47–50).

This argument underscores what may look at first like academic nit-picking. Yet beyond the small detail lies an important scholarly debate about the nature of the foreign contribution to China’s economic modernization and the circumstances in which private banknote issuance spread as of the mid-Qing era. The mainsprings of private banknote issuance entail, in turn, at least five foci of discussion: why did the Qing court discontinue its first issue not long after it had securely asserted its rule over China (1650s)? Why did the Qing court refrained from engaging in further issues right up until it was hit by financial and political instability in the 1850s? Why was that 1850s issue also discontinued? Finally, and most importantly, were Chinese privately issued notes considered reliable, and did they fill the void left by Qing reluctance to engage in note issuance before the 1850s?

Shunzhi Issue: Background and Aftermath

Over the course of its 268 years, the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) issued traditional (read: vertically printed) paper money only twice. The first issue of Qing notes (chaoguan) was ordered by the Shunzhi Emperor (r. 1643–1661) not long after the Qing had come to power and amid residual ethnic Han resistance to the Manchu invaders. It was on a small scale, amounting to 120,000 “strings” per annum, and only lasted between 1651 and 1661. After Shunzhi’s demise in 1661, calls for resumption of note issuance weakened, although they never completely disappeared (Xiao Qing 1984, pp. 292–294; Lin Man-houng 2006, p. 40).

Peng Xinwei (rep.1988, pp. 807–808) and others (Yang Lien-sheng 1952, p. 68; Shi Yufu 1984, pp. 109–11) suggested that the Manchu emperors were atavistically mindful of the inflationary pressure, which had broken out because of the abuse of paper money during the reign of their ethnic forebears, the Jin dynasty (1115–1234), over North China. While Peng deemed the extant historic materials insufficient to assess the volume, metallic reserves, or precise circulation dynamics of the limited Shunzhi issue, he did state that it had been initiated as response to treasury funding shortfalls occasioned by the Qing’s expedition to occupy the island of Zhoushan near modern Shanghai.

In all likelihood, the reemergence of Qing issues in the Shunzhi reign embodied a short-lived monetary policy aberration that defied the overarching pattern of Qing statecraft and was borne out of military exigency. It was in view of this overarching pattern that scholars have recently made the argument that the Shunzhi issue, while short-lived, probably entrenched the Qing reluctance to issue notes because it also proved inflationary (Horesh 2014; Wei Jianyou 1986, p. 83; Peng Xinwei 1958, pp. 556–559). Either way, the Qing refrained from issuing notes for nearly 200 years thereafter.

The Xianfeng Resumption of Paper Money Issues: Background and Consequences

Following the Shunzhi Emperor’s demise, it took another 200 years before supporters of fiduciary currency could muster sufficient clout at court to persuade the Xianfeng Emperor (r. 1850–1861) to embrace this course of action on a large scale. Unusual circumstances made the notion of issuing government notes less objectionable: a grave fiscal crisis engulfed the new emperor right from the moment he acceded to power, a crisis brought about by Opium War indemnities and the onset of the Taiping rebellion. Therefore, Xianfeng-era notes (Hubu guanpiao) were issued on a much larger scale than under the Shunzhi Emperor 200 years earlier. At the same time, government foundries released a substantial amount of new daqian coins, whose face value exceeded their intrinsic copper worth. Both media of payment proved exceedingly inflationary, disrupting the market exchange rate of copper to silver and fuelling popular unrest.

In 1853, the Qing Treasury (Hubu) authorized provincial authorities to directly disburse silver and copper-denominated notes bearing its seal of approval on a much larger scale. These Hubu notes were, however, “dumped” (lanfa) on purveyors of services and goods to the imperial bureaucracy and not as readily accepted back in tax payments. Their value depreciated so much that such local issues were curtailed in 1860. At the time, local authorities in Fuzhou also issued and readily converted notes, partly in order to alleviate cash scarcity. However, debased coins would often be paid in return, to the extent that the metallic reserve backing this issue up lost much of its value, thereby compounding inflationary pressures and the longstanding popular mistrust of paper money (Horesh 2014).

The accession of the Tongzhi Emperor to the throne brought this monetary episode to an end. Nonetheless, during the last year of issue, notes with a total face value of no less than 60.2 million silver taels had been disbursed, while imperial tax revenue during that time amounted to meagre 86.6 million taels (Ji Zhaojin 2002, p. 20–32).

In a notable study, Yang Duanliu (1962, pp. 112–113) cited memorials to the Xianfeng Emperor himself in order to show how – despite his instruction to back imperial and local yinqianhao banknote issues with up to 50% in silver reserves – the actual reserve ratio varied considerably from province to province. Some provinces did not keep a silver reserve at all. Worse still, several provinces including Henan – being situated not very far from the capital – did not accept their own notes when collecting tax. In Yang’s view, these inadequate ratio and insubordination to central government edicts were the main reasons why by 1862 all notes had disappeared from circulation. On his part, Ch'ên (1958) suggested that the imperial treasury made the situation much worse by insisting that no more than half of individual tax remittance could be made with Xianfeng notes, the remainder being demanded in hard currency.

As indicated, the Xianfeng-era hyperinflation was not only driven by inadequately backed paper money but was aggravated by the fact that – after initial hesitation – the Xianfeng approved the issue of debased daqian. To be sure, because of the Opium War outlay and the subsequent indemnity imposed on the court, Chinese imperial fiscals had already suffered a 9.2 million tael deficit on the eve of the Xianfeng Emperor’s accession in March 1850. To understand why he eventually changed his mind and resorted to the historically tainted daqian, it is useful to recall that by December that year a much more ominous threat to Qing suzerainty appeared: the Taiping rebellion. In that sense, the late-Qing undoing of historical constraints concerning daqian and paper money issues was not so much a policy choice but an emergency measure. Indeed, many of the supporters of note issuance at the Xianfeng court had also been in favor of issuing daqian and iron coinage, as a means of alleviating the fiscal crisis and the shortage of copper cash caused by the Taiping inroads in the southeast (Ch'ên 1958).

The last phase of Qing banknote issuance lasted from 1897 right until the dynasty’s collapse in 1912. It was substantively different to the two previous phases because, by then, notes had been imported from Western printers; they were novel in design in Chinese terms (i.e., horizontal-shaped). They were therefore harder to forge. But more importantly, the new notes were not secured by the imperial treasury (Hubu) but disbursed in the main by Chinese semiofficial modern banks, explicitly modeled on foreign ones (Cheng Linsun 2003; Ji Zhaojin 2002; Horesh 2009).

Late–Qing Foreign and Indigenous Financial Institution

According to Peng Xinwei (revised edition, 1988, pp. 886–889), as late as 1900, the volume of privately issued notes accounted for no more than 3% of the Chinese currency stock. Even if we add to the tally silver-denominated notes which, according to Peng, had by then been mostly issued by state or modern banks, it is highly unlikely that the volume of Chinese privately issued notes surpassed 6% of the total. Apart from that, the lack of disclosure by foreign banks as to the volume of their notes outstanding in China proper resulted over the years in inflated estimates thereof (Horesh 2014). It would thus be implausible to conclude that the ratio of all notes as part of the entire Chinese money stock was – even as late as 1900 – much higher than 10%.

That said, by the early 1900s, traditionally cast copper “cash” made up only 17.78% of the Chinese currency stock and gradually receded from the marketplace thereafter. The vitality of copper cash to the Chinese hinterland economy hitherto needs to be placed in the context of Western Europe’s tiered monetary systems between the thirteenth and eighteenth century, namely, before the spread of steam-powered mints and nation-state territorial currencies (Helleiner 2003; Sargent and Velde 2014). In that context, it could be argued that the Chinese late-Imperial polity was preoccupied to a much greater degree with maintaining grain reserves and making grain affordable, and its attention the copper-silver exchange rate should be seen in that light (Dunstan 2006).

Nevertheless, Peng (revised edition, 1988, pp. 886–889) estimated that foreign trade dollars – among which the Mexican silver dollar was by far the most prominent – had made up nearly a quarter of the Chinese currency stock by the 1900s, i.e., considerably above the share of traditional “cash.” The trend in Japan and in the Western-dominated world reversed in the meantime. Namely, the worldwide introduction of government steam-minted coinage as of the mid-nineteenth century had led in fact to a rapid diminution in the spread of Mexican-mined silver dollars, particularly in the Americas and the Philippines. So, too, did the concomitant diffusion of the gold standard and the discovery of extensive silver deposits in Nevada, California, and West Africa (Helleiner 2003, p. 38).

The implications of Xianfeng-era central and provincial government intemperance were such that Shanghai’s Bund district, because it headquartered large foreign banks, ended up one of the few places in early twentieth-century China where the use of paper money was standardized. Thus, it was one of the few places where banknotes were readily convertible into silver dollars, or into bullion of verifiable quality, regardless of the political climate at large.

Before the establishment of the first British banks on the Bund, Shanghai’s monetary predicament was not much different. Since about the mid-eighteenth century, the main financial intermediary in the lower Yangtze basin – by far the most commercialized part of the country – were the qianzhuang. Known in English as “native banks” or “money shops,” these institutions were typically small proprietorships with unlimited liability, loosely aligned along family and dialect ties and rarely patronized by local authorities (McElderry 1976).

Large money shops issued scrip against individual deposits called zhuangpiao. (“shop coupon”), but proximate shops could cash this only after 10–15 days during which couriers would liaise with the issuing shop to rule out fraud. The main business of qianzhuang was, however, advancing loans in rural areas to support the exchange of commodities between the seaboard and hinterland.

By comparison, the financial landscape in much of North China remained closer to the central government orbit. Until the fall of the Qing in 1911, the dominant institutions there were what Western observers called Shansi [Shanxi] banks or piaohao (remittance houses) in Chinese. The piaohao were first set up in the 1820s by merchants from the city of Pingyao. They specialized in long-distance money remittances on behalf of government agencies or the dispatch of officials’ emolument (Cheng Linsun 2003, pp. 11–15; Huang Jianhui 1992, 194).

The scope of business of these two types of financial institutions was patently dissimilar: the qianzhuang profited from relatively high interest rates charged on unsecured loans to medium-range merchants, while the piaohao subsisted on draft commission. For this reason, some piaohao were known to deposit idle funds in qianzhuang interest-bearing accounts, so that the general relationship between the two was one of cooperation and complementarity rather than of confrontation.

China’s economic center of gravity began to shift during the 1850s from Guangzhou to Shanghai. As affluent landlords and officials were seeking refuge from the upheavals of the Taiping rebellion (1851–1864) in the city’s foreign concessions along the Bund, qianzhuang activity diversified to include investments in real estate and later in stock exchange speculation. Thus, while the dynastic collapse dealt a fatal blow to the Shansi banks in 1911, Shanghai’s money shops survived right up to the 1940s (McElderry 1976, pp. 68–69; Cheng Linsun 2003, p. 38).

As from the 1860s, the qianzhuang clearly gravitated toward a new source of capital in Shanghai: the foreign banks. By 1888, as many as 62 of Shanghai’s largest money shops were borrowing capital from foreign banks to the tune of millions of taels annually. Buoyed by this new source, the money shops transformed themselves into an indispensable conduit for the finance of treaty port trade. Put simply, they on-lent foreign bank funds to Chinese wholesalers of imported goods until the latter sold their stock and paid off the debt. This form of on-call foreign bank credit came to be known as chop loans, or chaipiao in Chinese (McElderry 1976, p. 21; Pan Liangui 2004, p. 105).

British, European, and Japanese banks could readily lay down funds in the treaty ports because they had cultivated exclusive relationships with foreign trading houses, ever ready to exchange local money for sterling bills. The foreign banks were otherwise much better capitalized than the diffuse money shops; the credit they advanced reinvigorated treaty port trade, which had often lapsed into barter patterns (McElderry 1976, p. 18–19; Hamashita 1980).

At the same time, foreign banks identified the opportunity afforded by China’s fragmented money markets and political instability. By 1911 they mobilized domestic resources on an order of magnitude that exceeded their initial paid-up capital several times over – largely through banknote issuance and deposit receipts. As security for the chop loans, British banks often accepted zhuangpiao. It is therefore plausible to assume that the origins of the chop loan contract lie in the fact that these “shop coupons” had been so widely used when the British banks set up their first branches – that the latter could not simply reject them, when presented for encashment by foreign purveyors. Moreover, foreign banks were also compelled to keep an account with at least one money shop, since only the money shop guild could clear the myriad forms of zhuangpiao circulating in Shanghai through an elaborate daily mechanism dubbed huihua, i.e. “draft exchange” (McElderry 1976, pp. 8–10).

Chinese historians have routinely depicted the foreign bank (qianzhuang) nexus as hugely exploitative, because the money shops were thought to have paved the way for foreign inroads into China’s economy (e.g., Zhang Guohui 1989). But in a recently published article, Nishimura (2005) has debunked much of this contention by showing that chop loans did not take up the lion’s share of money shop activity and were even more marginal on foreign bank balance sheets; at times, the money shops even lent money back to foreign banks on call.

The breakdown of the chop loan mechanism projected its effects not just on the standing of zhuangpiao in the money markets – all the other organic, private-order arrangements were badly hit. In the first instance, these arrangements concerned the individual intermediaries employed by foreign firms to guarantee Chinese liabilities like zhuangpiao – commonly known to Westerners as “compradors” or maiban in Chinese (Ji Zhaojin 2002, pp. 54–57).

The compradoric arrangements embodied organic, private-order mechanism that emerged in the mid-nineteenth-century treaty ports in response to language barriers and information deficits facing foreigners who wished to penetrate Chinese markets. Compradors personally guaranteed zhuangpiao and other Chinese liabilities before foreign institutions, but did not have the leverage to guarantee metallic money disbursed by foreign institutions in the Chinese marketplace. In the fractured monetary condition of the times, other highly specialized organic institutions emerged precisely to that end: the gonguju and yinlu metal assayers (Wagel 1915, pp. 114–118).

Japanese and continental banks, which were latecomers into the Chinese market, may well have been more ready to engage the domestic sector. In his portrayal of commerce in late-Imperial Tianjin, Kwan Man Bun has shown, for example, that the foreign banks, which helped the city’s salt merchants tide over losses in the wake of the Boxer rebellion (1899–1901), included the Yokohama Specie Bank, the Banque Russo-Chinoise, the Deutsch-Asiatische Bank, and the Saigon-based Banque de l’Indochine (Kwan Man Bun 2001, pp. 138–144).

There is another ample evidence to suggest that domestic financial institutions had lent profusely to expatriate-run ventures even when foreigners were not among their main shareholders. The most clear-cut example is the Imperial Bank of China [IBC], 73% of whose 1901 loan portfolio was advanced to expatriate firms (Huang Jianhui 1994, p. 87).

It should be pointed out that the good reputation that the IBC still enjoyed among foreigners at that stage was due to the fact that its patron, official Sheng Xuanghuai, had partly modeled it on HSBC in 1897. Since imperial coffers had been depleted, Sheng sold equity in the new institution to both within and outside the government bureaucracy. Along the way, he overcame concerns raised by prominent official Zhang Zhidong fearing “excessive” private ownership of imperial institutions (Feuerwerker 1958, pp. 228, 232; Chen Limao 2003; Hamashita 1980, p. 459).

The IBC was China’s first limited liability bank, the first to employ foreign staff, and the first of many Chinese banks to order notes from overseas printers. In conformity with early HSBC guidelines, IBC’s total banknote issue was at no time to exceed paid-up capital, and one third thereof was to be covered by a cash reserve. However, fragmentary balance sheet data suggest that this stipulation may not have been enforced after 1906 (Feuerwerker 1958, pp. 230–240).

Structural disparities between the indigenous and foreign banking sectors partly derived from geographical distribution: Chinese banks had, of course, much more leeway to popularize notes in the vast hinterland that stretched beyond the confines of the treaty ports. Within the treaty ports, foreign banks were protected from Chinese government intervention by virtue of their extraterritorial status. Foreign banks rarely opened branches elsewhere, with the exception of politically sensitive Beijing. But the disparities may have also derived from overemphasis late-Qing reformers had laid at banknote issuance as a definitive constituent of modern banking. The reformers were quick to note how China’s institutional weakness invited foreign banks to recoup profits from fiduciary note issuance in the treaty ports. On the other hand, they failed to heed attendant reserve requirements, which set foreign banks apart from traditional financial institutions (Horesh 2009).

The reformers called on the throne to foster government-run banks to counter foreign economic inroads. But their frame of references and argumentation was not materially different from that of Qing bureaucrats who had previously tried to persuade the Manchus to overprint paper money as panacea for the dynastic decline. Nonetheless, the traditional monetary discourse did change to the extent that the early reformers had been castigated during the 1850s, whereas reformers in the 1890s could make more daring suggestions – like the adoption of a gold standard – with impunity (Ye Shichang 2003, pp. 36–43; Yang Duanliu 1962, pp.104–113; Huang Jianhui 1994, pp. 90–91).

In the interim, the dilemma for the fiscally strained Qing court remained the same: how to retain imperial revenue without unleashing inflation that would provoke popular resistance, and without surrendering more central powers. Late-Imperial body politic was often blighted by indecision and contradictory thrusts that precluded lasting synergy between the state and private spheres in the realm of money. By the mid-nineteenth century, perhaps earlier, this shortfall had opened up a gaping loophole through which privately funded British trading houses and Anglo-Indian financial institutions could thrive on China’s coastline (McLean 1976, pp. 292–293, 300–304).

Imperial attempts at regulating banks and currency in Qing China came too little, too late. When financial reforms were finally promulgated, the survival of the dynasty had already been largely beholden to the foreign powers, so that the issue of foreign banknotes and restrictions on foreign banking in general were hardly broached (Huang Jianhui 1994, pp. 100–104). The Mackay Treaty signed between Britain and China on 5 September 1902 included, for example, an imperial pledge to coin uniform currency “…which shall be legal tender in payment of all duties taxes and other obligations throughout the Empire by British and Chinese subjects” (Wagel 1915, p. 83; Hall 1921, pp. 20–23). The idea was to remove barriers to trade from coin variation to provincial turnpikes (likin). However, subsidiary coin minting was not so lucrative to begin with. By contrast, the Treaty made virtually no reference to banknote issuance.

The demand for a uniform coinage from both foreign and local merchants certainly made headlines at the turn of the twentieth century. But the freshly minted tongyuan coinage (see above) was hardly the solution that they had had in mind. The matter was to be resolved only in the Republican era. Any question of currency reform around 1900 had to determine whether the currency base should be silver or gold. It would have also required the monetary power to be concentrated in the hands of the Qing central government at a time when it was heavily indebted and losing its grip on finance. In that sense, the inflation that the tongyuan coinage set in train made up one of the major factors leading to the Republican Revolution of 1911, which eventually toppled the Qing dynasty (Faure 2000).

After the fall of Qing in 1912, the volatility of the European powers’ informal imperia in East Asia became abundantly clear. To begin with, the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) had unanticipated outcomes reverberating throughout the region. One of the implications was a boost for Japanese banknote issuance in China. Then, after World War I, German financial institutions were ejected from the region. In the 1920s, the three principal British overseas banks in East Asia – HSBC, Chartered Bank, and the Mercantile Bank of India – were still unchallenged financially. So too was the British-run stock exchange in Shanghai, which attracted both foreign and Chinese investors (Horesh 2015). Yet with the rise of Chinese nationalism and the phenomenal leap in homegrown modern banking, their future prospects were becoming increasingly uncertain (Horesh 2014).



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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Durham UniversityDurhamUK
  2. 2.Western Sydney UniversitySydneyAustralia

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